If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, call 211 or visit 211maine.org.
Bangor-area organizations that offer treatment and other services for those battling addiction and mental health challenges say the region needs to beef up the resources it has to fight an opioid epidemic that has grown worse during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The renewed call for help comes as the number of overdoses and overdose deaths continues to tick upward in the Bangor area and statewide. Maine set a record for overdose deaths last year, and is on track to exceed that number this year. Penobscot County has seen a disproportionate share of those deaths.
The barriers to beefing up the area’s services needed to reverse those trends remain finding the needed funding and trained personnel, the organization’s leaders said Tuesday during a public forum moderated by Penobscot County Cares, a collection of 35 regional nonprofits and organizations that seek to address growing substance use, homelessness and mental health issues.
The leaders asked Bangor city officials to consider designating some of the roughly $20 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding the city has received and but hasn’t yet decided how to use.
The need for more affordable and recovery housing was on the top of each speaker’s list, as secure housing would likely help people address other challenges that make it difficult to address addiction.
“Housing needs to be Bangor’s big focus right now,” said Suzanne Farley, executive director of Wellspring, which offers mental health and addiction counseling in Bangor. “Other projects are equally important, but if people don’t have a place to lay their head at night, they cannot begin to figure out how to solve the other issues in their lives.”
Dr. Noah Nesin, innovation adviser for Penobscot Community Health Care in Bangor, said increasing the city’s homeless shelter capacity likely isn’t the solution to the city’s housing crisis. Instead, he pointed to how PCHC had used what was then the Ramada Inn in Bangor as an extension of its Hope House shelter for much of the pandemic.
“The additional dignity and privacy that having your own room and bathroom allowed really helped stabilize people with profound mental illness, substance use disorder, or a combination of the two,” Nesin said.
Some 12-15 percent of those who died from drug overdoses in Maine in recent years experienced some degree of homeless, whether they were entirely unsheltered or staying with friends and family, according to Gordon Smith, the state’s director of opioid response, who didn’t participate in Tuesday’s forum.
Bangor police have responded to 199 suspected drug overdoses so far this year, 22 of which were fatal, according to the Bangor Police Department. That gives Bangor the highest rate of overdoses this year among the state’s three largest cities.
Portland, with a population more than twice Bangor’s size, has seen 333 overdoses so far this year, according to police in that city, including 37 that were fatal. Lewiston, with about 5,000 more residents than Bangor, has seen 156 overdoses so far this year, including 10 that were fatal, according to police statistics.
While the number of overdoses is on the rise, Smith noted the vast majority are not fatal, as naloxone has become widespread, giving people a chance to seek treatment. The state saw 4,922 overdoses in the first six months of this year; some 329 — or 6.6 percent — were fatal, according to state statistics.
Those who are ready to receive treatment need to be able to access it immediately, rather than put their names on a wait list, the Bangor-area service organization leaders said.
Robert Fickett, executive director of the Bangor Area Recovery Network in Brewer, said when people battling substance use disorder are ready for treatment, they’ll likely change their minds if they have to sit on a waitlist for weeks or months before they can get help.